To write in Egypt and about Egypt has long meant being under the scrutiny of an authoritarian state — starting in the 1950s with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who nationalized the press, and extending to the present. If you didn’t approve of the government’s activities, your only option, you quickly learned, was to be noncommittal.
My first encounter with the red lines of authority was in the early 2000s, as a young writer at a weekly paper in Cairo. One day my editor, a well-respected journalist who stood apart from his submissive state-appointed colleagues for his outspokenness and professional rigor, called me into his office after an editorial meeting. I had proposed to write about an impending gas deal with Israel. He was apologetic but clear: There would be no talk of the gas deal.
There was an official blackout on coverage of Egypt’s relations with Israel. Border issues were off-limits. So was heavy metal music, thought to be a pact with the devil. Particular turns of phrase also were no-nos: “iron-fisted,” for example, when used to describe the president, since any criticism of him could land you in jail. I quickly learned the ropes and the bounds, and I inadvertently, not conscious of the act itself, learned to self-censor, too.
This, in many ways, was the beginning of what would become a growing space of silence in my writing life, which slowly extended beyond politics. Over the years, I developed a habit of sidestepping or writing in innuendo anything that I thought might be culturally offensive, exposing, taboo.
In the fall of 2010, the year before the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, I was part of a small team of writers and editors that founded the online news site Ahram Online. It was partly funded by the state and under the umbrella of the government daily Al Ahram. But our editor, Hani Shukrallah, was a liberal and a leftist — a fierce defender of press freedoms and human rights, who encouraged us to push boundaries. After that year’s particularly contentious parliamentary election, during which Mr. Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party hired thugs to beat up dissident candidates, we ran an article with the headline “Blow by Blow Account.” Mr. Shukrallah almost immediately got a phone call from the chairman of Al Ahram.
He came out of his office and grudgingly told us that the headline had to go. We changed it to “Minute by Minute Account.” We also chopped off the last paragraph of an article I was writing because it mentioned the president’s younger son, Gamal, who was angling for power in a standoff with the army. This type of censorship, slight in many ways, severe in others, had become a mode of survival; one picked one’s battles.
Still, it was only for a fleeting moment in 2011, in the early days of the uprising — before any clear division between factions had become apparent — that my notebook felt like a liability: I was stopped several times on the street by police officers who were suspicious of my note-taking and interrogated me about my affiliation and intentions.
In all my years of writing, it had always been clear what could and what couldn’t be addressed, even when the difference between those things shifted as the political story changed. There was still a margin for challenging the status quo, to subtly suggest what could not be said — that was mostly a matter of timing and venue. Writing in English, one had more leeway. Sometimes journalists were jailed and people disappeared, but such perils didn’t loom over the everyday or anyone I personally knew.
The present, in this broader historical context, feels novel. In the space of a single day in April, three journalists were detained. Over the whole year, the number is thought to be 38. Others have disappeared. The crackdown now also extends beyond journalists, to anyone with a voice: actresses, comedians, satirists, bloggers, poets, singers, photographers and researchers.
The journalist and novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison because of sexually explicit scenes from his novel that were published in a magazine. The poet Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison after she wrote a Facebook post calling the slaughter of sheep during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha “the most horrible massacre committed by humans.”
This summer, Galal el-Beheiry was also sentenced to a three-year term, for the title of his anthology of poems, which plays on a phrase critical of the military. The Egyptian singer Shyma was imprisoned in January for making a suggestive music video involving a banana; another singer was also jailed — for joking about the cleanliness of the Nile’s waters. This week, an actress was handed a trial date for wearing to the Cairo International Film Festival a fishnet dress revealing her legs.
Many of these works, which earned their creators charges of “blasphemy,” “offending public morals,” “inciting debauchery” or “contempt of religion,” were reported to the prosecutor’s office by fellow citizens who questioned their morality. The laws are vague enough to act as a catchall. The crusade to silence words, images and thoughts is both opaque and arbitrary. What may well escape the state censor might still offend a neighbor — partly because the government has encouraged citizens to report fake news and “forces of evil.”
For decades under past presidents, the conservative current in Egyptian society had been kept in check. But the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, keen to show itself as no less religious than the Islamist leadership it ousted, has allowed the righteous to speak up. Censorship, too, can be crowdsourced.
Writing an essay on Egypt for The New York Review of Books some months ago, I spent many hours over many days debating the inclusion of certain words. “Heteronormative” might not be understood; “heterosexual” might be misinterpreted. Or perhaps they were both too fraught, an affront to some people’s morals, simply for intimating the acceptance of other lifestyles. After debating the issue with friends, I scratched the sentence altogether. I went through a similar process recently in editing the Arabic edition of my novel, guided by a publisher well versed in the morphing standards of acceptability.
Today, the risks exist regardless of who you are, what platform you write or speak for, what language you choose to use. The bounds of right and wrong now extend beyond the parameters of a political system, to what is deemed to be moral for the culture and conscientious for the nation. This is a moment of crisis, when new forms of expression and resistance must emerge.
A question occupies me today: How to silence the censor inside me when faced with a growing sense of foreboding, even at times fear? How to invent, from this moment and this pressure, something radical, bound-breaking, new?
Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution and Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, and a contributing opinion writer.